Christmas Day, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jo. 1:5).

In the early days of the Church, Christians would celebrate the birth of the Savior at three gatherings: at midnight, at dawn, and in the morning. In Jerusalem, the midnight celebration (the traditional hour of Jesus’ birth) was held in Bethlehem, about five miles away, with parishioners returning to the city for the other celebrations. In Rome, in the Middle Ages, the liturgies of midnight, dawn, and day, were held in different churches around the city, with the bishop and parishioners making their way through the narrow streets from each one to the next. The first celebration centered on the story of the birth; the second on the angels and the shepherds, from Luke’s Gospel; and the third on the prologue from St. John’s Gospel, which we’ve just heard: “The Word was made flesh, and lived among us” (Jo. 1:14).

The beginning of John’s Gospel offers us a full-bored theological articulation of Jesus’ coming into the world; a different take on the old, old story of journey and manger, shepherds and angels, mother and child. John speaks of God coming into the world, becoming human, in order to reconcile humanity and God. In truth, it’s not really different from the story we know from Luke’s Gospel or Matthew’s, which are no less theological than John’s account; that is, if we take “theological” to mean, not “technical” or abstruse, but simply speaking of the things of God.

John speaks of the same things that the angels praised and the shepherds encountered, and that Mary and Joseph saw at Jesus’ birth. He uses a different vocabulary, and a different style, from the narratives that Luke and Matthew spell out. He speaks of “word,” “life,” and “light”: big categories in human experience. It’s John’s characteristic move: if we broaden our look to the letters attributed to him, we add to the list “love,” as in “God is love” (1 Jo. 4:8).

But John is no abstract theologian. An ancient tradition tells us that John learned the words of our Gospel reading this morning while he was at the Last Supper, directly from Jesus himself. As improbable as that tradition is, it does encapsulate a truth. In other words, our Gospel is a reflection of John’s own experience of the Messiah, which the writer connects to truths that are present in every Christian’s encounter with Jesus Christ.

What leads us this morning, to participate in this liturgy? Our Gospel this morning might offer a clue when it speaks of the light that shines in the darkness. Remember the sequence of the ancient liturgies. We’ve moved from midnight to dawn to the full light of day. The light that began to shine when Christ was born has grown and grown and come to fill the earth. The darkness has not overcome it: quite the contrary.

Christ is the true light, as St. John says in our Gospel. The prologue connects the light of Christ to the light that first began to shine in the beginning, when God made all things. There is a re-telling of the Genesis story in our reading, one that places Jesus at the center of the story. Genesis tells us that God spoke and creation came into being; our prologue personifies the word that God spoke and makes it the Word, Christ himself. The Word spoken first by the Father, the light that shone in Eden, has now taken human form in Jesus Christ, to banish the darkness and to put death to flight. This morning we’re standing in the light that began to shine when the world was created; the same light that enlightens everyone who is born into the world, as our Gospel says.

In the brightness of this morning, in a city cloaked in a rare sprinkle of reflective snow, we catch a glimpse of the first light of the world; we catch a glimpse of the true light who is Jesus Christ himself. The darkness has not overcome it. His light truly fills the earth.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee